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You may have experienced this before: When you repeat the same word over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over, the words suddenly sound foreign and lose all meaning, but why?

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Vegetable vegetable vegetable vegetable vegetable. Don’t worry, I’m not trying to brainwash you into eating your veggies or anything.

I’m trying to induce semantic satiation: that thing where if you repeat something enough times, it starts to lose all meaning. Sure, maybe that’s not the most productive way to spend my time — but! This effect can tell you a whole lot about how your brain reacts when you ask it to process the same thing over and over and over and over….

Semantic satiation was first reported in academic literature in the early 1900s by British psychologist. Edward Titchener. He described losing the meaning of a word as puzzling and a morsel frightening, which is a very 1900s way of putting it, but is also pretty accurate.

It is kind of scary when a word you use all the time suddenly seems foreign and strange. Soon, psychologists started studying the effect through case studies and smaller experiments. But it wasn’t until more recently that we really started to get an idea of what causes it.

So, why does the meaning of repeated words just ... slip right out of your head? Well, every time you say the word “vegetable”, you activate the associated node – the area of your brain responsible for storing the concept of what a vegetable is. And when you repeat the word, you activate the node again and again.

Asking that node to activate so many times in just a few seconds is kind of like asking your brain to sprint really hard and just... keep… going. It might start off well, but after a while the node gets fatigued, and every activation that you force by saying the word vegetable yet again is that much harder to make happen. When a node gets tired like that, it’s called reactive inhibition, and that’s where the “satiation” in semantic satiation comes from.

While that node is inhibited, you can’t use it to draw meaning out of the word “vegetable” until it recovers. Even weirder, because of this node arrangement, when you satiate one word, it can also become harder to draw meaning from other related words and concepts. A great example of this comes from research published back in 1990:.

Participants were asked to satiate a word that represented a category, like the word “furniture”, by repeating it 30 times. Then they were presented with two related words, like “chair” and “table”, and asked to identify whether the words belonged to the same category as each other. Even though they weren’t directly analyzing the word “furniture”, subjects who’d repeated it 30 times were slower to identify whether or not the two words were related — probably because they had a harder time accessing the meaning of things related to furniture.

People in the control group, who only repeated “furniture” 3 times, didn’t have those problems. Their furniture node wasn’t tired out, so they could access the meanings of related words just fine. So if you repeat the word “vegetable” enough times, you might also have trouble processing the word “carrot” or “pepper”.

But satiation can affect more than just words. Other studies have shown that satiating emotional words, like “happiness” or “anger” can impair your ability to recognize those emotions in facial expressions for a while. In one study from 2012, for example, 60 college students looked at a set of faces until they were familiar with them.

Then they were divided into a control and an experimental group. At the beginning of each trial, they were asked to repeat the word for an emotion, like “happiness”. The control group only repeated the word 3 times, but the experimental group repeated it 30 times, taking them firmly into semantic satiation territory.

Both groups were then shown a face displaying that emotion — so if they’d been repeating the word “happiness”, the researchers would show them a happy face. After a pause, they’d show them two versions of that happy face. One would be slightly happy, and one would be very happy.

Think a “Huh, I look great today” face versus an “Oh my gosh, we’re getting a puppy?!” face. One of those two pictures matched the first one the subjects saw, and they had to identify the matching one. And the experimental group who’d repeated emotional words 30 times took longer to identify the matching picture.

Repeating words like “happiness”, “fear”, and “anger” made it harder for them to access the entire concept of that emotion — including what it looks like as a facial expression. So, the next time you’re trying to cram for a quiz by repeating all those new words you’ve gotta learn, just remember that your brain has limits. Maybe let it take a breather in between rehearsing words over and over and over and over.

And if the word “vegetable” is starting to sound as weird to you as it is to me, well … at least our brains are getting confused together. Thanks for watching this episode of Scishow Psych, and a big thank you to our patrons on Patreon who made it possible. If you liked it, feel free to give us a thumbs up, and if you want to keep exploring psychology with us, hit that subscribe button.

Until next time!